Water quality is necessary in understanding the health of a river. Tests measure Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Chlorophyll, and Water clarity. Both Nitrogen and Phosphorus are elements that are considered nutrients from all types of runoff. In excessive amounts they can cause algal blooms and affect water clarity. Chlorophyll is a pigment found in plants and algae, and is used to detect suspended phytoplankton (leads to algal blooms). Water clarity tests for suspended sediment and to observe how much sunlight can reach lower lying levels of the river. Pollution can result from both agricultural land, as well as urban, in forms of storm water, runoff, and waste.
Wicomico Creekwatchers: Every year Wicomico Creekwatchers conduct a water quality report of the Wicomico. Citizen volunteers go out and collect water from 21 sites every week from March to November. These samples are analyzed by Salisbury University students. The water is tested and compared with data from previous years in order to observe seasonal / yearly changes in water quality.
The elevated 2013 TN and TP concentrations compared with 2012 were unusual; high flow years often dilute the concentrations of nutrients in river systems due to higher water volume, although loads increase. TP concentration did decline in the Upper Wicomico, which possibly reflects recent improvements in the Salisbury waste water treatment plant. We suspect that because the 3 years prior to 2013 were relatively lower rainfall years, the soils in the Wicomico River watershed retained much of the nutrients that would have run off into the river in years with normal rainfall. This nutrient retention combined with the heavy rainfall in 2013 equated to uncharacteristically high concentrations in runoff. The algal community responded unevenly in 2013. During summer TN is usually depleted, but 2013 provided higher concentrations than normal, providing an ideal situation for algal blooms. TP is also released in summer from sediments in response to anoxia created by decomposition. However, higher precipitation in 2013 probably aided in the dilution of algae and sediment, which may explain the lower algal abundance in the river main stem, as higher stream flows flushed algae out of the river system. The Ponds experience slower flows and longer retention so that algae were able to accumulate. Despite the uncharacteristically high nutrient concentrations in a year of high rainfall and stream flow, 2013 indicates overall improvement compared with 2006-2011 averages. Although not all parameters were at healthy levels, this signals a long term trend of improved water quality and a response to actions taken to clean the Wicomico River.
Although the unhealthy amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous shown by these studies is not the ideal picture of health for a body of water it does not mean that the Wicomico is too dirty to swim in, well in some places at least. Overall The Wicomico River is safe to swim in according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency with the exception of the ponds in most of its headwaters due to high levels of bacteria contamination. Of the entire river the lower Wicomico near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is actually one of the cleanest and most pristine parts of the river, due to the low human population and the large amount of natural wetlands surrounding it many contaminants are filtered out before entering the open water. The image below tells a story about the factors surrounding the Wicomico River that have effects on water quality and you can see why there are differences from the upper, middle, and lower rivers.
Below is an explanation regarding a study done by Salisbury University Professors on the bacteria contamination levels of Shiles Creek and Schumaker Pond. Read what happened with their study and the data they collected. A very interesting story!
In a study done by five Salisbury University professors, they determined the Fecal Coliform fingerprints from non point source pollution on one creek called Shiles Creek and Schumaker Pond. Their goal/project was to "use DNA fingerprints of E. coli to improve the water quality of the Wicomico River and Schumaker Pond by identifying the principal source(s) of contamination so that effective measures may be taken to regulate and mitigate or eliminate elevated coliform levels of the river" (Elichia Venso, Mark Frana, Michael Folkoff, Michael Scott, Daniel Harris, Mary Phipps-Dickerson). The study began on December 2000 and ended in November 2001, where they mainly focused on Shiles Creek and Schumaker Pond, both of which are areas that you may not swim in to this day. The large amounts of e-coli bacteria involved in their study was determined to be mostly wildlife, such as raccoons, muskrat, and deer at Shiles Creek and mostly Canine at Schumaker Pond. According to their study, in order to control the elevated bacteria levels in Shiles Creek, Wildlife management seems to be the best choice in this situation. One of the biggest factors that can help control the bacteria levels in Shiles Creek and Schumaker Pond is educating both rural and urban residents. Residents should understand that disposing properly of dog wastes and covering food and food wastes would reduce polluted runoff and limit the access of food to raccoons and possums.
What is E-Coli? E-Coli stands for Escherichia coli, which is a bacteria that grows in the gastrointestinal tract of animals and humans. Don't worry, nothing to worry about while it is inside you. However, it becomes a problem when it comes in contact with the environment. That's why our sewage goes through a Waste Water Treatment Plant that has a special process to remove the harmful bacteria. But what people don't know is that not picking up or containing your pet's waste causes environmental problems for everyone else. That was the big study with the Salisbury University Professors and they concluded that mostly wildlife and canine (dog) were the main causes for the e-coli contamination of Shiles Creek and Schumaker Pond. The e-coli spreads with the increase in precipitation, which eventually flows as runoff into the waterways and river systems. So if you ever see the "No Swimming" signs at most of the ponds and on the Wicomico River, then you know why it is unsafe to swim.